The Hebrew word for "barren"— ('akar); feminine, ('aḳarah)—denotes probably "uprooted," in the sense of being torn away from the family stock, and left to wither without progeny or successors. A similar import attaches to the word "'ariri" (from ), "bared," "stripped," translated "childless" in the A. V. and applied generally only to the male (Gen. xv. 2; Jer. xxii. 30; but see Lev. xx. 20, 21).Biblical Examples.
A race that piously looked upon children as "an heritage from the Lord" (Ps. cxxvii. 3), seeing in them sources of strength as well as of blessing—"Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them" (ib. verse 5); "thy children, like olive-plants, round about thy table . . . thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord" (Ps. cxxviii. 3, 4)—very naturally looked upon the opposite state of childlessness as a grave misfortune. The wife who presented her husband with no such tangible blessings or supporters felt that her aim in life had been missed. "Give me children or else I die!" was the plea of Rachel (Gen. xxx. 1) when she saw Leah adding child after child to Jacob's household; and the desperate remedy for her own childlessness, suggested (ib. verse 3) and carried out (ib. verse 4), showed how keenly she felt her position. In a later age Peninnah taunted Hannah with her unfruitfulness, "provoked her sore, for to make her fret" (I Sam. i. 6). Later yet, the best return that Elisha could make—at the suggestion of Gehazi—to the Shunammite was to pray to the Lord for the termination of her childlessness (II Kings iv. 16).Change of Attitude After Bible Times.
But the good sense of the people in the age of the Apocrypha, when intercourse with the world had brought broader views, drew a finer discrimination between mere prolificness and Barrenness. It took into account the possibility that so many children might not always be so many blessings; that sons and daughters might be bad as well as good. "Desire not a multitude of unprofitable children," wrote Sirach; "though they multiply, rejoice not in them, except the fear of the Lord be with them . . . better it is to die without children than to have them that are ungodly" (Ecclus. [Sirach] xvi. 1-3). The Book of Wisdom even asserts that there are better and more lasting monuments than children; intimating that it is better to have virtue than offspring, for the memorial of the former is immortal, known to both God and men (iv. 1; compare Isa. lvi. 3-5).Estimate of Barrenness.
The Talmud marks another stage in the attitude of the popular mind toward Barrenness or childlessness. The development of the Law, and the duty of teaching it diligently to one's children, brought additional pain to the heart of the pious but childless Jew, who gloried in the performance of all the commandments, but found he could not impart them to "those who should come after him." Such a one is reckoned as if "menuddeh," cut off from all communion with God, like unto him who voluntarily disregards all the precepts of the Law (Pes. 113b); he is accounted as already dead, together with the pauper, the leper, and the blind (Ned. 64b), for all the enjoyment that is left to him in life. "Weep sore for him that goeth away, that shall return no more nor see his native country" (Jer. xxii. 10), wasinterpreted by R. Judah as being applicable chiefly to him who dies without children (M. Ḳ. 27b); his quiver is not full with those that shall represent him in the study-house or the Temple. But at times the ethical side rose superior to the religious view also among the doctors of the Law of the Talmudic age: "A man's good deeds are his best posterity" (Tan. vii.).
A remarkable light is likewise thrown upon the usual conception of the supreme importance of a numerous progeny by the provision—probably intended for certain obstetrical cases well known to modern surgery—that while it is always forbidden for a man to partake of a defertilizing draught, such may sometimes be permitted to a woman (Tos. Yeb. viii. 4; see Levy, "Neuhebr. Wörterb." s.v. ). A passage in Shab. 110a et seq. gives the alleged ingredients of such a drink (, "the cup of barrenness").
Medieval Judaism, taking its coloring from the superstitions of its surroundings, saw an additional source of sorrow in Barrenness, in the consequent impossibility of having the Kaddish recited by children for the repose of the souls of the parents upon their demise. See article Kaddish.
For the legal aspects of Barrenness, see Marriage Laws.